‘Moby Doc’ is Not Your Average VH1 ‘Behind the Music’ Documentary, Thank Goodness

After a year and three months, I finally got the opportunity to sit in a movie theater, in this case the Nuart in West Los Angeles. While many seats were taped off as social distancing rules are still in effect, it was nice to sit down in one of my favorite places to be as I have been away from it for far too long. Furthermore, being able to take my mask off to enjoy buttered popcorn along with a Barqs Root Beer made the experience even more special as I had ever reason not to indulge myself in these things as I am trying to lose a few pounds to say the least.

The movie which finally brought me back into a movie theater was “Moby Doc,” a documentary about, and I quote IMDB’s description here, the “trailblazing electronic musician and animal rights activist” whose music we hear on the radio, in TV commercials and in movies, several of them directed by Michael Maan, every day, Moby. But while I went into this documentary thinking it would be the average kind of its genre, both Moby and director Rob Gordon Bralver have given us one which is intentionally defiant of normal documentary rules, and what results is something which goes far deeper than the average episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music.”

“Moby Doc” starts off with Moby in the present day talking directly to the camera about how we think if we have “the right amount of money, the right amount of recognition, you will find perfect human happiness. But I tried, and it didn’t work.” Not many artists who have been through what he has experienced in terms of finding fame and then suffering a precipitous drop from it can say this as their lives often get cut short at such a young age. Moby, however, has come out on the other side a humbled human being who has found a peacefulness and happiness in life which, as we learn, has often eluded him.

Through the use of animation, crude stick puppets and a troupe of actors Moby has cast to portray his parents, we learn about traumatic his upbringing was as his father ended up committing suicide by driving his car straight into a brick wall, and the relationship he had with his mother was dysfunctional at best as he could not always reach out to her the way he wanted to. What’s even worse is how years later Moby missed her funeral because he slept in after an evening filled with drugs and alcohol. Judging from the animated images shown to us in the aftermath, lord knows if he has yet forgiven himself for this transgression. Heck, I still am haunted by a memorial service I wanted to attend but didn’t as the dates got mixed up in my head. As a result, I still have yet to find any closure on it.

One thing I really liked about “Moby Doc” is how it shows the importance of the arts in a person’s life. Moby freely admits how the act of making music was like a “form of self-healing” to where I believe how it saved him. When it comes to things like music, acting and writing, they really do lift the spirits of those who feel out of place in a society which does not automatically welcome them. I hope those school districts which are considering cutting art classes from their curriculum will watch this documentary and think second thoughts about doing so.

Seeing Moby discover music and how to mix music together is done through the use of home movies which feature him during a time when he had hair. The time when he lived in an abandoned factory seems frightening as he recounts all the horrible things which happened there including people getting murdered, but we also see how he evolved as an artist and a musician in this space to where it makes sense how it provided him with some of his happiest memories in life. This is especially the case when he compares these memories to the times when his ever so famous, and those times cannot compare despite all the wealth and attention fame brought him.

When it comes to “Play,” which is still Moby’s best-known album, its success remains astounding as it came after one of his biggest failures, “Animal Rights.” He was on the verge of quitting the music business and getting a real job, something many artists would be quick to consider as a permanent defeat to their ambitions. But while “Play” started off as a slow seller, it emerged as the equivalent of the Energizer bunny as, while that one kept going and going, the album kept selling and selling and selling…

As Moby delves into the amazing success “Play” gave him, he also is quick to describe how his follow ups did not sell anywhere as well, and this led to an increased desperation in him which many of his friends came to see as a case of complete narcissism. There’s even a scene where we see Moby getting tortured as if he were like Bruce Campbell at the beginning of “Army of Darkness,” and a lyric from Eminem’s “Without Me” song keeps getting said over and over; “Nobody listens to techno!”

Throughout this documentary, Moby and Bralver keep pulling the rug right out from under us as they want to keep the audience off-balance, and it is like John Cleese whenever he is on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and saying at any given moment, “And now for something completely different.” Things move from one scene where Moby discusses his problems with a female therapist to another visual of him standing in a desert or some other isolated place to where we are reminded of how lonely fame can be. 

Some may find the use of the various visual motifs and the non-linear style distracting or perhaps too artsy fartsy, but I found it to be extremely effective in digging deeper into Moby’s life as his work as a musician takes him out of his depressive depths to extreme success and then to devastating lows which made him consider suicide even at the height of fame. Thank goodness for us and him that windows in certain upscale hotels are not big enough for a human being to fit through.

But what really hit me hard about “Moby Doc” is when he talks about how he felt much happier creating music in the abandoned factory than he was when “Play” was selling millions upon millions of records. His point of how we strive for certain things like fame and fortune, thinking it will bring us the happiness which we believe is constantly eluding us, proves to be fruitless is something we cannot deny as he has seen it all and has come out of everything as a relatively sane human being, or as sane as anyone can hope to be in this day and age. It is this state of mind which not everyone gets to as many would be, as Paul Williams once put it, asking for a second cup of fame.

These days, Moby fights for vegans and has recently released the album “Reprise” which, as Peter Gabriel did with “New Blood,” contains orchestral and acoustic arrangements of songs from his long career. Some of those arrangements are featured here in this documentary, and they force you to look at his songs in a different way as not everything about them could have been seen on the surface.

It is nice to see an artist like Moby get a second chance in life. Some get so caught up in the realm of fame and fortune to where they cannot connect with any other human being in life, and this constitutes a tragedy which I hope people in general avoid. But while some artists like Amy Winehouse met a tragic end, he still lives on doing what makes him feel happiest and most fulfilled. Here is hoping others like him can see through the clouds and not get caught up in the shallowest of things.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Jane Weinstock on ‘The Moment’

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Jane Weinstock, 2003

Filmmaker Jane Weinstock follows up her directorial debut of “Easy” with “The Moment,” a compelling psychological thriller starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Martin Henderson and Alia Shawkat. In the movie, Leigh plays Lee, a photojournalist who has just ended a tumultuous affair with troubled writer John (Henderson). But when she goes to John’s place to get her things, she discovers he has disappeared and is nowhere to be found. The stress of not knowing his whereabouts causes Lee to have a nervous breakdown, which in turn lands her in a mental hospital. During her recuperation, Lee reconnects with her estranged daughter, Jessie (Shawkat), and ends up meeting Peter, a fellow patient who somehow looks a lot like John. As Lee struggles to get a grip on reality and learn the truth behind John’s disappearance, the clues she is given lead her to the most unexpected of places.

Just as with “Easy,” “The Moment” has Weinstock dealing with the contradictions of human nature and psychological realism. It was fascinating talking to her about this movie, and we discussed the challenges of writing a highly complex screenplay, what it was like working with Leigh who is very serious in her approach to playing a character, and how her studies in psychoanalytic theory and semiotics came to inform this film.

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Ben Kenber: Regarding the screenplay, how difficult was it for you and your co-writer Gloria Norris to write it?

Jane Weinstock: Well our starting point oddly enough was the Edith Wharton novel “The Mother’s Recompense,” but we weren’t able to get to the rights to that. We didn’t want to do a period piece, but we wanted to sort of take the basic structure of this extremely complicated mother/daughter relationship and make a movie out of it. So once we realized that we couldn’t even get the rights, we just kept that relationship as our starting point and then we went on to write this piece. We decided quite early on to make the character of Lee a photojournalist because we have a fascination with danger, and at the same time a kind of ethical commitment to try to do good in the world. We both love Hitchcock, so I think there were Hitchcockian elements that we gravitated towards, and it also changed in various rewrites. We worked on it for a very long time so we rewrote it a number of times.

BK: When it came to the subject matter, did you do a lot of research on photography as well as depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder?

JW: Yes, I definitely thought of researching PTSD first. We actually showed it (the movie) in New York to a posttraumatic stress disorder specialist at Hunter College, and she felt that we really got it right so that was very gratifying.

BK: There’s a scene in the movie where Martin Henderson’s character is eating sardines which he says are good for those suffering from depression. Is that true?

JW: No, not really (laughs). They are good for your brain and they don’t have a lot of mercury.

BK: Jennifer Jason Leigh is well known for her method approach to the characters she plays. How did she approach the role of Lee in this movie?

JW: Well I did a lot of research and I gave her my research and she looked through that, and she’s known photographers before and she just was her many ways. During rehearsal we worked on the script together. We made some changes as we were rehearsing, and she’s a writer/director so she’s very, very good at that. She also looked at different cuts of the movie and made suggestions, so she was very involved creatively and not just as an actress.

BK: There is a moment in the movie where Peter is standing in front of his place of work and Lee is taking pictures of him, and he is covering up part of the word “storage” to where only “rage” can be seen. What was your reasoning for shooting the scene like that?

JW: It was just a little reference that I thought not many people would get, but you got it. He is a character who was filled with rage. He was imprisoned for five years for a crime that he didn’t commit, so he’s got a lot of rage that he turns against himself and feels towards the world as well.

BK: Alia Shawkat is fantastic as Lee’s daughter, Jessie. How did she get cast in the film?

JW: Well Jennifer had already been cast, so we had her read with several actresses. They were all great, but when I asked myself, ‘could this actress be capable of murdering somebody,’ I always came up with the answer no except for Alia. I really wanted her to feel like someone who is capable of murder, and I also really liked the fact that she looks like she’s part Iranian, and she is part Iranian, so we could give her an Iraqi father.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot this movie?

JW: We shot it in 22 days, and then we had two days for re-shoots.

BK: With movies like these, the shooting schedule always seems to get shorter and shorter.

JW: I know. It’s crazy.

BK: I read how while you were at New York University you focused on psychoanalytic theory and semiotics. Did any of those studies factor into the making of this movie?

JW: You know it must have especially in terms of the writing and having a psychoanalyst be in the movie. But there’s also a way in which I had to drop a lot of my theoretical knowledge and just make it more organic, and at other times I could get very heady.

BK: In some ways “The Moment” is timely because our reality keeps getting distorted by technology and in other ways as well. By the movie’s end we’re not entirely sure if Lee is even dealing fully with reality. With technology today we are getting closer to the truth, yet at the same time we’re being taken further away from it. Was that something you thought about during the making of this movie?

JW: I guess something I thought about most in terms of that kind of general theme of the movie is that we live precariously in an uncertain world which is partly a function of technology but also a function of the times and all the wars we’ve been living through. The last 20 years has been a very, very uncertain time, and then the reaction to this kind of need for certainty comes up in the form of the Tea Party and other kinds of very fundamentalist types of positions. I thought about it in terms of that more than in just technology specifically.

BK: It seems like these days people are not fighting for the truth necessarily, but more for the truth as they see it. “The Moment” reminded me a bit of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” It’s a very different movie, but like with Bill Pullman’s character, Lee is trying to get a grip on all that is happened to her. Still, we’re not entirely sure she has succeeded in doing so.

JW: Yeah, people have compared the film to David Lynch’s work. He’s not somebody who I respond that strongly to. I’m much more of a Hitchcock person, but I can see that. Another big theme in the movie which is definitely Hitchcockian is guilt, and even if none of these people actually killed John, is that really the end of it? Can people carry guilt with them, or for the moments that they have created that may or may not have led to John’s death? For example, the moment where Lee kisses John, at that point there’s no turning back. This has to end badly, right?

Thanks to Jane Weinstock for taking the time to talk with me about “The Moment,” a film that constantly challenges your perception of reality throughout its running time.